Europe Ready For Their Close-Up: Northern Spain And Portugal
Stand atop São Jorge Castle in Lisbon, high above the city center, and one of the first things you’ll notice are the cranes. All across the city, tower cranes have sprouted between the red-tiled roofs as far as the eye can see. A shining example of urban renewal, Lisbon is in the midst of an extraordinary revival. The same is true throughout Spain and Portugal, where after decades of economic stagnation, a breathtaking renaissance is underway.
Dazzling and dynamic, the changes have unleashed an incredible creative spirit, making the Iberian Peninsula a requisite destination for foodies, wine lovers, art enthusiasts and Europhiles alike. The results can be felt particularly in Northern Spain and Portugal, where Madrid, the Douro Valley, Porto and Lisbon are garnering international attention for their efforts. Let us introduce you to this vibrant land with a 10-day itinerary that can easily be tailored by an Andrew Harper Travel advisor to accommodate your interests.
Madrid: 2 Nights
Spend a few days in this lively metropolis and you’ll quickly get into the swing of Spanish life. Vibrant yet laidback, Madrid’s residents embody Spain’s joie de vivre attitude with an infectious warmth and a passion for good food and wine. A culinary and art powerhouse, few other cities can compete with Madrid’s innovative restaurants and world-class museums, and with jet lag on your side, the traditional 10:00 p.m. dinnertime won’t feel like such a stretch.
Madrid is surprisingly accessible, and most major sights are within a comfortable walking distance. That said, start your visit with a private city tour and you’ll be sure to catch all the highlights. For lunch, stop by Mercado de San Miguel, the city’s historic food market, where you’ll find stalls from some of the city’s best-known chefs and restaurants. Afterward, stretch your legs with a leisurely walk through El Retiro Park, a green oasis in the heart of the city.
The next day, spend the morning admiring the Velazquez collection at the Prado, Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofia or the Impressionist masterpieces at the Thyssen-Bornemisza. In the afternoon, explore the upscale shopping district of Salamanca, one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, before embarking on a guided tour of the city’s celebrated tapas bars in the early evening.
“Spain is our home; it is our passion and specialty. Travel like a local with us, be one of the few to enjoy exclusive demonstrations and activities that teach about the lives of our hosts and the depth of our culture. In these intimate settings, traditions come to life, ideas flourish and friendships bloom.”
– Alejandra Garces, Tailored Spain
Douro Valley: 2 Nights
An enchanting valley of steeply terraced vineyards, the Douro is known for its tawny Ports as well as its exceptional table wines. Less commercialized than some other wine regions, tours and tastings tend to be relaxed affairs, often led by the vintners themselves. Once considered a hidden gem, the valley only began to gain international popularity in the last decade, in part because there were so few places to stay. Thankfully that has changed, and the valley now boasts two excellent vineyard hotels.
A short drive from Madrid, the Abadía Retuerta Le Domaine is an elegant Romanesque abbey set on a spectacular estate that includes 500 acres of working vineyards. Closer to Porto, the Six Senses Douro Valley offers guests gorgeous valley views from a hilltop estate that features a much-celebrated spa. Both hotels can organize tours of local wineries, delightful al fresco lunches in the vineyards and lazy afternoon cruises aboard the river’s traditional flat-bottomed boats.
“he Ribera de Duero north of Madrid is emerging as a new Napa Valley of Spain, with wineries like Abadia Retuerta attracting wine aficionados who are eager to explore the region. The Madrid-Valladolid-San Sebastian route is brimming with culture and several Michelin-star restaurants.”
– Marian Gerlich, Abadia Retuerta Ledomaine
Coimbra: 1 Night
Home to Portugal’s most well-respected university, Coimbra is a thrilling mix of ancient architecture and youthful energy. The university, which constitutes much of the town’s historic center, is one of the oldest in the world, and its grand buildings are Coimbra’s star attraction. Don’t miss the Johannine Library, one of the most magnificent on the continent, or St. Michael’s Chapel, a display of royal opulence that would be hard to top.
Halfway between Porto and Lisbon, Coimbra is the perfect place to stop for lunch. If you decide to spend the night, the Quinta Das Lágrimas is an enchanting 18th-century palace hotel with 12 acres of gardens and its own fairytale history.
Porto: 2 Nights
Situated at the mouth of the Douro River, Porto’s brightly colored buildings rise from the river’s bank with a stalwart nobility. A fascinating town with an illustrious history, Porto’s compact center is the perfect place to spend the morning appreciating the beauty of the city. Don’t miss the Beaux-Arts São Bento train station with its exquisite blue-and-white tilework, and the Sé do Porto, the city’s twin-towered cathedral with magnificent views. In the afternoon, tour one of the city’s famous Port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia, many of which offer private tastings by appointment.
The next day, take a day trip to the perfectly preserved medieval towns of Braga and Guimarães. Once a Roman outpost, today Braga is known for its abundance of Baroque churches and elegant squares. Just outside town, you’ll find Bom Jesus do Monte, a gorgeous 18th-century pilgrimage site famous for its 577-step zig-zagging staircase. In Guimarães, the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza is the highlight of this remarkable town. Built in 1420, the estate proudly displays a large collection of Portuguese decorative arts.
Lisbon: 3 Nights
Not long ago, Lisbon was down on its luck. Many of the city’s grandest buildings were boarded up, jobs were hard to come by and young people were fleeing in droves. Those days are long gone. In just a few short years, the city has undergone a remarkable transformation, and today Lisbon is a city on the rise. Bursting with creative energy, neighborhoods are once again filled with shops and restaurants and the city’s many monuments and museums are welcoming visitors from around the world.
With an incredible mix of history, art and culture, Lisbon could easily entertain for a week, but there are a few highlights that shouldn’t be missed even on the shortest of itineraries. Featuring a magnificent collection of jewelry by René Lalique, the Gulbenkian Museum is one such spot. São Jorge Castle and Jerónimos Monastery are two others, but to really get the feel of how the city has changed, head to the neighborhoods of Alfama or Bairro Alto, where the cobblestone streets and colorfully tiled buildings mix with chic rooftop bars and trendy cafés.
If you have an extra day, don’t miss Sintra. This fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site is an easy day trip from Lisbon and well worth the effort (especially if you stay at Tivoli Palácio De Seteais Sintra Hotel). Once the summer destination of choice for Portuguese royalty, the National Palace is here, as is Quinta da Regaleira, a spectacular estate designed by an Italian set designer with mystical leanings and a flair for the dramatic.